The Iron Giant
Tony Aldous introduces Sir Neil Cossons, the new chairman of English Heritage.
To some people it may seem surprising that a man who has been running museums for almost forty years should, at the age of sixty, become chairman of English Heritage; to others not surprising at all, since it confirms their belief that EH, like the whole ‘heritage’ business, is profoundly backward-looking. But no one who knows Sir Neil Cossons, who this month takes over the chair from Jocelyn Stevens, could subscribe to either misconception. Cossons has always believed that a lively interest in the past can be a powerful tool for the creation of a better future, and has brought a rare combination of idealism, hardheadedness, resourcefulness and lateral thinking to achieving this.
He first made his name, ten years into a museums career, as pioneering director of the fledgling Ironbridge Gorge Museum. ‘My colleagues at Liverpool thought I was completely bonkers taking on Ironbridge,’ he recalls. From deputy director of a major city museum he moved to an untried project: a museum of industrial archaeology in an out-of-the way location. ‘At Liverpool we had 300 staff; starting at Ironbridge there were just three of us.’